Mar 042012

Going to combine two different concepts in this one. One is a combination of mechanics and flavor; the other is pure flavor/story.

Starting with magic items, I want to see the math of the system less dependent on them. That is, I want it to be possible to play a low- or even no-item campaign with minimal, if any, tweaks. The addition of magic items should raise a character/party above the baseline, rather than the absence of them lowering the character/party below the baseline.

Now, to an extent, they’ve already said that’s part of the design philosophy. But I’d like to see it taken a step further. And I acknowledge in advance that this is practically apostasy where D&D is concerned, but here it is…

I want to see +X items stripped from the game.

No +1 longsword. No +3 chainmail. No gloves of Dexterity +4.

A magic item should do something. A sword that bursts into flame on command? Chainmail that lets you turn into an elemental once per day? Gloves that let you throw webs like the spell? Yes! Great! Fine! More of those.

And if some of those also impact the math–such as the flaming sword adding to damage, and perhaps giving a bonus to hit against fire-vulnerable creatures specifically–that’s cool. In fact, that’s more than cool; it’s thematically appropriate.

But items that do nothing but give bonuses? No. Items that give bonuses in all situations? (Such as a +4 sword vs. a sword of gnome-hating which gives a +4 bonus only against creatures half your size or smaller.) No; give me the latter, not the former.

Actually, don’t even give me the latter. Bonuses to hit, even conditionally, should–except in the absolute rarest or most specific of cases–max at +1 or +2. (Damage can be more flexible without breaking the math, but not the actual attack.) If that doesn’t sound like enough to make cool items, well… Make them cooler based on what else they do.

So, enough of that. Alien creatures.

What do I mean by that? Primarily, I mean creatures that are not only grossly inhuman, but whose very concepts revolve partly around their inhumanity. Mind flayers. Aboleths. That sort of thing.

Modules and novels–even those written by good writers, who I really like and really respect–have a bad habit of treating them just like other NPCs. You have aboleth who want to rule. You have mind flayers wandering around the markets of Skullport, or plotting to take over portions of a drow city.

No. No, no, no. I realize it’s hard to write creatures with inhuman motivations–I’ve tried it myself–but if you can’t, don’t use them! There are plenty of other monsters to choose from. One should never fully understand the motivations or thought processes of a mind flayer. The entry of one into Skullport should be momentous, with even the other denizens of the Underdark recoiling in fear and horror–not necessarily because the thing’s more powerful than them, but because they can’t damn well understand it. The notion of a mind flayer merchant is an oxymoron. The notion of a mind flayer “adviser” to a drow noble should fill everyone–including the drow–with dread, because you never, ever know to what ends the thing is actually driving you.

These things are Lovecraft-inspired, so let them be Lovecraftian. I’d rather never see a mind flayer in D&D fiction or adventures again than to see one used in such a way that a psionically-empowered human would have done the job just as well.

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  13 Responses to “What I Want to See in DND: Magic Items as Magic, and Alien Creatures as Alien”

  1. I ditched enhancement bonuses years ago. I started by allowing +0 weapons with weapon qualities, eventually decided I liked how they worked, better, so dumped the enhancement bonus altogether. I haven’t particularly missed them.

  2. I absolutely agree with everything you said about alien creatures.

    And not only do I agree but I already clearly stated the exact same things you said about “really magic” magic items, including the no +1 / +x change.
    This BIG comment that touches all the “more magic Magic” wishes can testify for me:

    Will designers follow this logic? I don’t think so, for one reason: too many people would complain that “+1 / +x magic items” were “a staple of the game”… I agree with having many “staples of the game” there in Next, but this one, I’d really really like them to throw it out of the window. Glad to know you think the same!

  3. Sorry to be bland but… I agree (yet again)!

    It is tough with magic items because +1 longswords are a definite staple of the game and pretty dang iconic. But, once upon a time THAC0 was iconic of D&D. Even if +1 longswords are iconic of D&D, I long ago found them pretty boring and started avoiding them as well. Magic items do need to DO something and not just give bigger plusses. (In fact, I got bored with a lot of “bigger plusses” in the game and started ignoring bit swaths of feats as well. Back in 3.x it was pretty ugly with all of the +X to something boring feats.)

    In my mind, bigger bonuses should only come from class advancement (and maybe few limited spells, but I’m not even sure about that). Other than class advancement, it better be interesting and not just a bigger plus. That’s a waste of ink in my opinion. :)

  4. What about the idea of magic weapons that are “more flexible” on the attack end but providing low, stable increases to damage. One of the problems with the idea of limiting the math on the attack side is that it’s all or nothing…you can have +24 to damage, but if you miss you do zero. That’s what leads to silly things like powers that advertise “half damage, even on a miss!”

    A magic item that grants a big bonus to attack rolls, however, makes the math much more stable. It’s also more genre appropriate, with the magic sword wielder slicing through foes left and right, instead of the “if I hit a nuclear bomb goes off, but I’m not much better at hitting than the guy with the rake.”

    This opens up possibilities for simplification like “all magic weapons deal +2 damage…period.”

  5. Years ago, I ran a game where the only magic weapons you could get were the ones you could afford to have custom made. They were crazy expensive and only the owner could use them, but they were also powerful and special.

    My players, bless their brainwashed little heads, hated it. Unfortunately for them, they were all too damned lazy to take over as GM. Eventually, once they got up around 5th level and pooled their money for an enchanted bow (extra range, extra damage, +2 to hit), they began to warm to the concept, but still whined a bunch.

    I would love to see D&D lose the “enchanted weapons for all” thing, but I won’t hold my breath.

    As to making alien creatures alien: Hell yes! Again, not likely, but a great idea.

  6. “It’s also more genre appropriate, with the magic sword wielder slicing through foes left and right”

    I’d rather see that come from the character’s innate abilities than the magic weapon. Aragorn was doing that before he held Andúril. Excalibur wasn’t what made Arthur a knight.

    If you really want that from a weapon, though, then a magic weapon that gives a large bonus to hit, but only on rare occasion (be it certain circumstances or X/day) could accomplish that without building the higher numbers into the assumed math of the game.

    But I’m not really advocating for huge damage bonuses, either. My entire point is that I want to see weapons do something other than modify the math. Said modifications should always be secondary to something else, and mostly shouldn’t occur at all.

  7. One of the themes I’m working with for Echelon is that it’s up to the wielder. I’ve got a good idea what the characters can do, but I haven’t worked out magic items yet.

    Yes, someone with the right ability can use a mundane shield to put up a wall of force. His will and personal power project a tangible barrier… because he’s that good at it.

  8. To me the +1 longsword is iconic.

    But the +2 longsword is not.

    Having +1 weapons with no properties, and +0 weapons with cool properties (ones that you’d generally prefer to the +1) is interesting. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having the +1 in there, as long as it’s not the best choice. And +6 is just getting silly.

  9. Very interesting idea about magic items and I agree with most of it. In the games I run I rarely (if ever) give out just stock +X weapons. If a magic item has a +X bonus (usually +1) it also has a cool magical effect to go along with it as I homebrew most of my magic items.

    One thing I would disagree with you on is the ability score raising items like the aforementioned gloves of dexterity. Personally, I think these items already have a cool effect, they make you faster, stronger, more charismatic. Although I would only ever give out a +1 version (maybe +2 if I was being generous). Players, in my experience, want to improve their ability scores and in earlier editions it was a rare occurrence if something like that happened.

    But all in all I agree with you about magic items as well as with alien monsters.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. It kills me when I see my players sell the cool cloak of the manta-ray they just found so they can afford to upgrade their gloves of dexterity. Unfortunately, it’s almost always a better choice mechanically to take the stat boosting item, or one with a large ‘plus’, so I can’t really blame them. Players might miss these things initially, at least until they realize they don’t *need* them anymore. Everyone will be happier with exciting magical treasure.

    As far as alien aliens, this has always been a pet peeve of mine as well. I remember reading a D&D adventure where the mind-flayer’s lair had a bed and a dresser!?! Alien brain eaters from beyond the knowable dimensions shouldn’t live in areas indistinguishable from your average bandit leader’s room. They should replenish themselves in bubbling pools of mucous, meditate in featureless spherical rooms of polished black stone, or have strange sleep cycles that require them to spend 1 month out of 12 in an organic cocoon…

  11. I do like enhancement bonuses as a way to give players (and myself as a player) a slight jump on the increasing numbers line that games in general do. Want to know if a level 5 fighter is better then a level 1 fighter? having bigger numbers helps with that information.

    I do agree that having the enhancement bonus always due to more powerful magic can seem odd, but D&D and many other fantasy settings run on magic, so it’s like complaining that modern computers use better electronic materials in order to be better.

    I do agree that far too often, Far Realm humanoids have far too similar behaviors, but having them be total aliens… is kinda hard to do, particularly if the Far Realm entity isn’t crazy powerful and hides in humanity.

  12. “Want to know if a level 5 fighter is better then a level 1 fighter? having bigger numbers helps with that information.”

    That’s exactly why I don’t like stat-boosting magic items. Because the level 1 fighter with a +5 sword is now better than the level 5 fighter [with no magic]. Now, obviously, it’s not a complete equalizer–but enough stat-boosting items, and it might be. And both GM guidelines and common sense say that you probably shouldn’t be in that situation in the first place, but mistakes will happen.

    I just like the idea that, if you want to get better, in the raw-numbers sense, you need to get levels. For my own homebrew D&D, I went even further than Ari is suggesting: there’s no such thing as +N magic. Took out all the spells that just boost a stat, eliminated magic item stat boosting. Magic should do something that you *can’t* without magic, not just do the same thing better. In practice, it’s not quite that cut-n-dried–there’s the occasional magical effect that is distinctly different, but also carries with it some [potential] stat modifiers, like shapeshifting. But, like Ari said, if there’s a stat bonus due to magic, it should be a side effect, not the whole point of that magic. So, no such thing as a +2 flaming sword–it’s “just” a flaming sword. No such thing as longsword +3 against giants–you can have conditional items, but what it gives you when the conditions are met will be something other than a +N on your score/roll. Maybe a longsword, flaming against giants.

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